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The Power of Disgusting Advertising

We hope to have something meaningful to say in our next book about the efficacy of advertising. This is a huge question that impacts everything from commerce to politics to journalism.

But for now, let me give one example. My kids were recently watching a Yankees-Red Sox day game on TV, broadcast on the YES network. One of the commercials was an anti-smoking ad — placed, I believe, by the City of New York. It was a gritty, documentary-style spot, featuring a surgeon talking to the camera, then showing the patient he was about to operate on. The patient was a man whose toes were blackened and rotting away. The image of the foot was extremely disgusting. “It’s gangrene,” the surgeon said, and then he drew on the man’s leg with a marker to show where he was about to take his hacksaw and cut off the leg.

The ad made a huge impression on my five-year-old daughter. Hours later, she asked out of the blue, “Are you still thinking about that boy’s foot?” She couldn’t eat dinner that night since she was still thinking about the disgusting image. She is definitely more scared of seeing that foot again than she is of seeing the Wicked Witch of the West again. We talked about it for quite a while; I explained that smoking is bad for you, even though in the old days people actually thought smoking was good for you, and now the message they’re sending is that nobody should smoke.

Will this ad work? Will it cause a young person who sees it to never smoke cigarettes? Also, is this kind of imagery appropriate for broadcast during a program — a daytime baseball game — that young kids will be watching?

I blogged earlier about the different factors thought to have caused the big decrease in smoking in New York City in recent years, and advertising was one of them. I will look forward to reading the future research of scholars who set out to measure the impact of ads like this one versus other pressures against smoking, including smoking bans in public places, higher taxes, etc.

Whether or not my daughter ever smokes a cigarette, I have already seen one very real impact of the disgusting gangrene ad: she is a lot less interested in watching TV.